“See yourself in others, then who can you hurt? What harm can you do?”
— The Buddha
As human beings we often aim for recognition and validation.
As performers we naturally think that comes in the form of applause, of 'bravos' and super-human awe.
The trouble comes when the performer is tempted to show off in some way— there are times and places for virtuosity, but truly virtuosic art is always be rooted in truth within the context of a piece. Virtuosity for its own sake breeds a disconnected form of awe—meaning, the audience disconnects from the story, the narrative, the overall world, and, crucially, the believability of the character’s journey—they are merely impressed by you.
When you “belt an F” for the sake of it—an audience might gasp in awe, but if the belt is not connected to the character’s human need, it is the same as watching an athlete compete—inarguably impressive, but not truly why we engage with art. It is entertaining! And fun! And amazing! But it shouldn't be the ultimate goal.
Thus, I challenge every artist to want, work for, and aim for something deeper…
First, we must know ourselves. (And no, I'm not talking about self-obsession, solipsism, myopic me-monster-ing, or anything resembling New Age-y displays of self-knowledge). I'm talking about self awareness. About the recognition of personal mythology, patterns, proclivities, inclinations, fears, wounds, strengths, and weaknesses; and, more crucially, how they are interrelated to the universality of human nature. There is so much that can be gleaned from the exploration of the human self. Any human self. For in the search, we discover and unlock not only the mysteries of our own natures, but connections to human nature as a whole, throughout all of time.
Once we further understand our own selves, we can begin to engage with the glory of inter-personal relations through Empathy. Empathy is a human being’s greatest gift—the deep appreciation for anothers' situation, feelings, and point of view. It begins with awareness, understanding, feeling, caring, perceiving a similarity of experience, and compassion.
It is one of an actor’s greatest capacities for it is “other awareness,” a symmetrical companion to the self-awareness. True empathy requires us to identify with, fully comprehend, understand, and care about another. It is the basis for the golden rule, and our intrinsic sense of justice.
But my favorite definition of empathy is by the incredible vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, who defines empathy simply as the expression of “me too.”
Now, it is absolutely possible for these moments to be achieved during soaring high notes, big 11 o'clock numbers, and within the lake of tears that accompanies the big emotional scenes. But if those "high notes" are present for their own sake? If they are not connected to your actual vulnerability? Then this is what I mean when I say an audience cannot ever be anything other than impressed by your skills—the same way one might be impressed by the prowess of an athlete.
For you see, truly exceptional artists do not show off. They possess all the abilities to do so, but they risk the possibility of appearing (and I use this word with a huge caveat) “unimpressive” for the sake of the absolute truth. They begin by valiantly mining their own souls for every scrap of humanity—be it glorious, petty, sensational, ugly, magnificent, or shameful, and revealing it within the life of their character. They are willing to do a normally terrifying thing: to reveal. To truly connect. For great artistry is not about putting on proverbial masks to cover truth, it is about a kind of ultra-truth, something raw, deeper.
It is not always glamorous. It is not flashy. It is (more often than not) quiet. Revealing utter emotional nakedness is like the noiseless unzipping of the cloak we all use every day to face the assaults of daily life, and in doing so, we opening up our beating chest cavity and simply stand there, exposed.
“You too?” this posture silently communicates.When an audience witnesses that kind of art, there is possibility for her soul to lurch in true human recognition:
—“Yes,” the audience responds, “That is me; that is my life too…”Achieve that quiet miracle and an artist has fulfilled their ultimate calling.
So be brave.
Don't aim for 'bravo,' aim for 'me too.'